Normalising corruption in Meghalaya: Who will break the silence?  

Patricia Mukhim

At no time in Meghalaya’s history is corruption being discussed as it is today. As if to shame those in the Government that continue to deny that coal mining is going on, trucks turn turtle every other day and vomit out the coal they carry. Illegal coal mining has become an indecent obsession of the MDA Government. The word ‘illegal’ here has a double entendre. Sure the Supreme Court has allowed mining but not without conditions. The Government has not fulfilled those conditions because its ministers who are also coal mine owners view those conditions as unprofitable to their trade. So the best way out is to continue to mine coal illegally without having to follow any of the SC stipulations. The Government which includes key officials of the Directorate of Mining, the Transport Department, the Deputy Commissioners and Superintendent of Police of the coal bearing districts are all hands-in-glove in this indecent obsession. Everyone who facilitates this murky trade is paid off.

So when government officials earn more money by facilitating the coal trade than from their salaries why would they blow the whistle? Their creature comforts are maximized while their earthly acquisitions escalate. Today in Meghalaya the who’s who are in a race to acquire the most expensive vehicle which is now like an adult toy and to own a dream house (never mind if the home is a ramshackle mess of bitter recriminations and the family torn apart by a vulgarity fuelled by excessive greed). Anyone who has her ears to the ground knows which minister is acquiring real estate and where. They know the astounding costs of such properties but they are not even shocked. On the contrary there is a kind of reverence for the person for daring to indulge himself and his family by dipping into the public exchequer. We have indeed normalized corruption!

The utterly broken, eroded, pot-holed roads of Shillong tell their own story of sleaze in the PWD which starts from the top and goes right down to the bottom of the hierarchy. And on these battered roads that are now dry and dusty some minister who has just bought the latest Mercedes drives past. The other day a fantastic 3.67 crore Lamborghini was seen racing past a stunned citizenry. Soon we will have someone else flaunting the 26 crore Ferrari because in Shillong, Jowai, Tura the competition is to own the most expensive car. The Mercedes and Avanti are passé.

MLAs and ministers today and some bureaucrats and technocrats own opulent buildings, complete with swimming pools. Those who don’t own similar manors are a little shy of admitting it. But they too will make it their single point agenda to construct or acquire a mansion at the earliest; before their five-year tenure/service career is done. There is complete absence of guilt or fear of the consequences. For a state that is continually groveling before every minister in Delhi and begging for money, has anyone ever wondered where all this “black” money that’s floating around comes from? Is it not from funds that should go to building good roads and bridges; providing better health care facilities; constructing school buildings that don’t leak? In short, investing in building human resources for the state? The height of hypocrisy is that these MLAs and ministers and their business cohorts go to church and are entertained there mind you; not challenged, because without their patronage the churches would be poor!

I also wonder whether those running churches and preaching there Sunday after Sunday have the guts to call out corruption. For a state that some like to refer to as a ‘Christian state,’ (whatever that phrase implies) the rampant corruption in society today reflects the abject failure of the churches which have capitulated and have become part of the corruption in the state and society. If the church fails to challenge its members to stand up for truth, justice and to fight corruption at all levels then what is it actually preaching? Is a dead sermon of any use? No wonder those who think and reflect, no longer want to attend church just to keep their names on the list. Those who continue to attend, do so only to be allotted a space for their burial. The MLAs and ministers attend church to keep their congregation’s vote bank intact. Hence they also keep those captive vote banks amused with small crumbs and favours.

The truth is that as a tribal society we have forgotten all the tribal values we love to espouse at seminars and public meetings. It is a wearying exercise to keep reminding ourselves of the societal values that our ancestors (gender neutral) lived by. Those values have already been trampled on our feet so let’s stop going back to those halcyon days.

The failure to check corruption in government imposes a steep cost on society, easily dwarfing that of street crime. The moral and ethical dilemma is that all of us have started to accept that corruption in government and politics is inevitable. So normalized is corruption here that we are no longer shocked by the blasé manner in which public funds are used to feather private nests. In Meghalaya today, corruption is not just taken for granted but also perpetuated. In fact we have reached a dangerous crossroad where people valorize corruption by giving those indulging in scams a place of honour in society instead of socially blacklisting them. Those who patronize the corrupt, and that includes church leaders and preachers, are mutually reinforcing corruption.

In the rest of India, there is at least an attempt to battle corruption and to challenge the corrupt at every level. For instance, Magsaysay winner and journalist P Sainath clearly calls any idea that legitimizes bribery `an obscene one’. Sainath says, “Bribery is systemic. To ask a people burdened with it to accept bribe-giving as legal is to demand they accept both corruption and the existing structures of power and inequity it flows from. This is a perverse idea.”

The other day the newly elected Rajya Sabha from Meghalaya, advised people not to use words like “coal barons” for the coal mine owners because he says, the people of Jaintia Hills were very poor earlier but it was because of coal that they became rich and could send their children to the best schools. Will the Rajya Sabha MP provide a list of the present mine owners so that we know how many of them are poor and defy the phrase ‘coal baron?’ This writer has visited the coal mining areas in recent times and spoken to people there. It is not possible for ordinary ‘poor’ people today to mine coal because the payment (bribes) all along the journey is far too high for them to survive in the trade. Many have handed their mines over to a cohort of mine owners – the coal mafia who virtually run the state today.

In Meghalaya today the state is run by people whose personal ambitions extend no further than their bank accounts? And what do we citizens do? We watch in shock and awe as a Lamborghini drives past us and covers us with dust! We are simply stunned into silence. Perhaps our only hope is “The Revolution” led by Ardent Basaiawmoit. But when will this Revolution begin its journey? Isn’t it already too late?

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